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Full text of "Frederick Ayer, teacher and missionary to the Ojibway Indians, 1829 to 1850"

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University of California. 

Received JiCTlT* > ^9^0 . 

Accession No. O J ^ ^ • Class No. 



(Written at request of Rev. Mr. Boutwell.) 

Frederick Ayer was born in Stockbridge, Mass., in 1803. 
When he was two years old the family moved to Central New 
York. His father was a Presbyterian minister, and he in- 
tended that his son should follow the same profession; but 
before he was prepared his health failed and he turned his 
attention to other business. 

He commenced his labors for the Indians in 1829 by teach- 
ing the mission school at Mackinaw under the superintend- 
ence of Rev. Wm. M. Ferry. The pupils of this school were 
not all O jib ways, but were from many different tribes and 
spoke different languages. 

Mackinaw was then a general depot of the North Ameri- 
can fur traders. They brought not only their own children 
to the school, but such others as parents among whom they 
were trading wished to send. They were gathered from Lake 
Winnipeg, B. A., north, to Prairie du Chien and the head of 
Lake Michigan south. They were taught in English only. 

In the summer of 1830 Mr. Ayer went to La Pointe, Lake 
Superior, with Mr. Warren, opened a school and commenced 
the study of the O jib way language. In 1831 he met at Macki- 
naw Rev. Messrs. Hall and Boutwell, who were sent out by 
the A. B. C. F. M. to the Indians, and he returned with Mr. 
and Mrs. Hall and their interpreter to spend another winter 
at La Pointe. 

The next year, 1832, Mr. Ayer wintered with another trader 
at Sandy Lake. He opened a school there and completed a 
little Ojibway spelling book, which was commenced at La 
Pointe. In the spring of 1833 he left Sandy Lake for Utica, 
N. Y., to get the book printed. Mr. Aitkin, with whom he had 
wintered, gave him |80, and, with a pack on his back and an 
experienced guide, he started on his journey. Before they 
reached Sault Ste. Marie the ice in Lake Superior was so weak 
that Mr. Ayer broke through and was saved only by carrying 
horizontally in his hands a long pole to prevent his sinking. 


(Before arriving at any settlement they were out of provisions; 
but fortunately, providentially, I should say, they came to a 
sugar camp. Here they got iish of the Indians and a quart 
of corn, which they crushed between two stones, and this 
sufficed till they reached Fort Brady.) 

Mr. Ayer hastened on to complete the object of his journey 
that he might return to Mackinaw in time to go up Lake Su- 
perior with the traders. 

Hitherto Mr. Ayer had been an independent worker. He 
now put himself under the direction of the "American Board" 
(he married a teacher of the Mackinaw school) and was sent 
to Yellow Lake, Wis., within the present bounds of Burnett 
county. Miss Delia Cook, whose name should never be for- 
gotten among the early missionaries, of the American Board 
to the Indians, and Miss Hester Crooks, daughter of Ramsey 
Crooks, a girl educated at Mackinaw, and who had some ex- 
perience in teaching, were among the number who coasted up 
Lake Superior in a mackinaw boat; the former to La Pointe 
mission, the latter to Yellow Lake, * with Mr. and Mrs. Ayer. 
They wintered in Dr. Borup's family at La Pointe. Mrs. Borup 
also had for some years been a pupil at Mackinaw. The next 
yesLY Miss Crooks married Rev. Mr. BoutweU and went to 
Leech Lake; and John L. Seymour and Miss Sabrina Stevens, 
sister of J. D. Stevens, also Henry Blatchford, an interpreter 
from Mackinaw, were added to Yellow Lake mission. When 
Mr. Ayer told the Indians his object in coming among them 
they gave him a welcome. But six months later, seeing two 
or three log houses in process of building, they were much 
troubled, and met in a body to request him to go away. A 
Menomonee, from the region of Green Bay, had stirred them 
up, not against the missionaries, but against the general gov- 
ernment. The speaker said: "It makes the Indians sad to 
see the white man's house go up on their land. We don't 
want you to stay; you must go." And further on he said: 
"You shall go." Mr. Aj'er answered him. The party left at 
midnight, and the missionaries went to bed with heavy hearts, 
thinking that they might' be thrust out almost immediately. 
But before sunrise the next morning about two-thirds of the 

♦Yellow Lake river, which flows into the St. Croix from the Wisconsin 
side half way between Lake Superior and the Mississippi, is the outlet of 
Yellow lake. 


same party returned and said they had come to take back 
what they had said the night before. The war chief was 
speaker, but his words were mild. "Why," said he, "should 
we turn these teachers away before they have done us any 
harm?" The}^ would like to have us stay, he said, but added 
that they did not want any more to come, for the result might 
be the loss of their lands. We might use whatever their 
country afforded, but they would not give us any land nor sell 
us any. "For," said the speaker, "if we should sell our land 
where would our children play?" 

Mr. Ayer finished his school house and went on with his 
work as though nothing had happened. But CAddently things 
were not as they should be. The old chief seemed to "sit on 
the fence" ready to jump either way. The war chief was 
always friendly, but he had not so much control over what con- 
cerned us. He did what he could without giving offense and 
was anxious that his daughter of fourteen years should be 
taken into the mission family. Mr. Ayer remained two years 
longer at Yellow Lake. In the meantime the chief of Snake 
River band sent messages inviting the teachers to come and 
live among them. Accordingly in the spring of 1836 the 
mission was removed to Pokaguma lake, eighteen miles up 
the river. The chief did all he had promised, and showed 
himself a man. Nothing was said here to remind the mis- 
sionaries that they were using the Indians' wood, water and 
fish. On the contrary, when they sold their land it was urged 
that the teacher's children should be enrolled for annual 
payment the same as their own. The chief said that as they 
were born on the land it was no more than right, and he 
wished it might be done. Franklin Steele was the first white 
man who came to visit the missionaries at Yellow Lake. For 
sufficient reasons, Mr. and Mrs. Seymour had gone to Quiucy, 
111., to pursue their studies, and Rev. Mr. Boutwell and Mr. 
Ely had been added to the mission. A school had been 
opened, some Indian houses built, gardens enlarged, a church 
organized, and the fuiure looked hopeful. "But things have 
an end." 

In 1840 the Sioux selected this settlement as the place to 
avenge the wrongs of the Ojibways — some of recent date; the 
principal of which was the killing of two sons of Little Crow, 
done in self-defense, between Pokaguma and the Falls of the 
St. Croix. 


The Sioux arrived at Pokaguma in the night and stopped 
on the opposite side of the lake, two miles from the mission. 
The main body went to the other side, and, after examin- 
ing the ground where they intended to operate, hid among 
the trees and brush back of the Indian gardens, with orders 
that all keep quiet on both sides of the lake till the given 
signal, when the Indians were busy in their gardens, and 
then make quick work. But their plans failed. Most of the 
Ojibways of the settlement had, from fear of the Sioux, slept 
that night on an island half a mile out in the lake (I mean 
the women and children), and were late to their gardens. In 
the meantime a loaded canoe was nearing the opposite shore, 
and the few Sioux who had remained there to dispatch any 
who, in time of battle, might attempt to escape by crossing 
over, fired prematurely. This gave the alarm and saved the 
Ojibways. The chief ran to Mr. Ayer's door and said ex- 
pressively, "The Sioux are upon us," and was off. They seemed 
at once to understand that the main body of the enemy was 
close at hand. The missionaries stepped out of the door and 
had just time to see a great splashing of water across the 
lake, when bullets came whizzing about their ears, and they 
went in. The Sioux had left their hiding place, and the bat- 
tle commenced in earnest. Most of the women and children 
of the settlement were yet on the island. The house of the 
war chief was well barricaded, and most of the men gathered 
in there. The remainder took refuge in a house more ex- 
posed at the end of the village. The enemy drew up very 
near and fired in at the window. One gun was made useless, 
being indented by a ball. The owner retired to a corner and 
spent the time in prayer. The mother of the house, with her 
small children, was on her way to the island under a shower 
of bullets, calling aloud on God for help. 

The missionaries, seeing from their window quantities of 
bloody flesh thrown upon stumps In the battlefield, thought 
surely that several of their friends had fallen. It proved to 
be only a cow and a calf of an Ojibway. The mission children 
were much frightened, and asked many questions, and for 
apparent safety went up stairs, and were put behind some 
well-filled barrels. In the heat of the battle two Ojibways 
came from the island and landed in front of Mr. Ayer's house. 
Thev drew their canoe ashore and secreted themselves as 


well as surroundings would permit. Not long after three 
Sioux ran down the hill and toward the canoe. They were 
fired upon and one fell dead. The other two ran for help, 
but before they could return the O jib ways were on the way 
back to the island. Not having time to take the scalp of 
their enemy, they hastily cut the powder horn strap, dripping 
with blood, from his breast as a trophy of victory. The Sioux 
drew the dead body up the hill and back to the place of fight- 
ing. The noise ceased. The battle was over. The mission- 
aries soon heard the joyful words, quietly spoken, "We still 
live." Not a warrior had fallen. The two school girls who 
were in the canoe at the first firing in the morning were the 
only persons killed, though half of the men and boys in the fight 
were wounded. 

The Sioux women and boys who had come with their war- 
riors to carry away the spoil had the chagrin of returning as 
empty as they came. 

The O jib ways were careful that no canoes should be left with- 
in reach of the Sioux. The Sioux marauders found a log canoe, 
made by Mr. Ely, and removed their dead two miles up the 
river, dressed them (seemingly) in the best the. party could 
furnish, with each a double-barreled gun, a tomahawk and 
scalping-knife, set them against some large trees and went 
on their way. (Some of these articles, also their elegant (?) 
head-dresses were sent to the museum of the American Board 
in Boston.) 

In the closing scene the missionaries had the opportunity 
of seeing the difference between those Indians who had list- 
ened to instructions and those who had not. The second 
day after the battle the pagan party brought back to the island 
the dead bodies of their enemies, cut in pieces, and distributed 
parts to such Ojibways as had at any time lost friends by the 
hands of the Sioux. One woman, whose daughter was killed 
and mutilated on that memorable morning, when she saw the 
canoes coming with a head raised in the air on a long pole, 
waded out into the water, grabbed it like a hungry dog and 
dashed it repeatedly on the stones with savege fierceness. 
Others of the pagans conducted themselves in a similar man- 
ner. They even cooked some of the flesh that night in their 
kettles of rice. Eunice (as she was named at her baptism) was 
offered an arm. At first she hesitated; but for reasons, suffi- 



cient in her own mind, thought best to tal^e it. Her daughter- 
in-law, widow of the son w^ho had recently been killed and 
chopped in pieces by the Sioux, took another, and they went 
into their lodge. Eunice said, "My daughter, we must not do 
as some of our friends are doing. We have been taught bet- 
ter." And, taking some white cloths from her sack, they 
wrapped the arms in them, offered a prayer and gave them a 
decent burial. 

About this time a Mr. Kirkland was sent from Quincy, III., 
by a party who wished to plant a colony not far from 
the mission station. He arrived at Pokaguma very soon after 
the battle. Notwithstanding what- had happened he selected 
a location on Cross lake, just where a railroad has now been 
in operation for some years (Pine City). He worked vigorously 
for two or three weeks and then went to consult the Indian 
agent and the military at Fort Snelling. They gave him no en- 
couragement that the two tribes would ever live in peace and 
he went home. 

The Ojibways lived in constant fear, and the place was soon 
deserted. This was a great trial to the missionaries, but they 
did not urge them to stay. They separated into small parties 
and went where they could get a living for the present and be 
out of danger. The teachers remained at their post, occasion- 
ally visiting the Indians in their retreat, hoping they might 
soon think it safe to return to their homes. In this they were 
disappointed. These visits were not always very safe. On 
one of these trips Mr. Ayer was lost, and from cold and hunger 
came near perishing. Not finding the party he sought, he wan- 
dered about for a day or two. In the meantime the weather 
became much colder. Not expecting to camp out he took only 
one blanket and food enough for one meal. In crossing Kettle 
river on a self-made conveyance, and there being ice on the op- 
posite shore, he got wet. The Indians, anticipating his visit, 
had sent a young man to the mission station to guide him to 
their new locality. He returned in haste, fell on Mr. Ayer 's 
track, and a light sprinkle of snow enabled him to follow it till 
he was found. 

In 1842 Mr. Ayer went with his family to the States, and in 
Oberlin was ordained i)reached to the Ojibways. He soon re- 
turned to the Indian country, and David Brainerd Spencer, an 
Oberlin student went with him. They ^pent the winter of 


1842-3 in traveling from one' trading post to another, selecting 
locations for missionary labor. For their own field they chose 
Ked Lake. When Mrs. Ayer, with her two little boys, six and 
eight years old, went to join her husband at the new station, 
Alonzo Barnard and wife and S. G. Wright, all of Oberlin col- 
lege, went with her. Other missionaries soon followed, and 
that station was for many years supplied with efficient labor- 
ers. More recently the work there was assigned to Bishop 
Whipple, and is still carried on. The Ked Lake Indians were 
a noble band — they had a noble chief. In civilization he led 
the way, in religion he did not oppose. He shouldered a heavy 
ax, and could be seen chopping on one side of a large tree in 
profuse perspiration, while his wife was on the other side help- 
ing what she coulci with her hatchet. This chief was also an 
advocate of temperance. Not that he did not love whisky, but 
he hated the effect of it on his band. He dictated a letter to 
the president, begging him not to let the white-faces bring any 
more fire-water to his people, giving as one reason that they 
had teachers among them who must be protected, and if they 
had whisky he did not know what might happen. 

In the church there was much childish simplicity. Once, 
when Mr. Ayer was lecturing on the eighth commandment, he 
paused, and, without expecting an answer, said : "Now who is 
there among you who has not stolen?" One woman began to 
confess, another followed, then another. One thought she had 
stolen about seven times. Another entered more into particu- 
lars, mentioning the things she had stolen, till the scene was 
quite amusing. Another rose to confess, but was cut short by 
her husband, who said : "Who knows how many times she has 
stolen? We are a nation of thieves." And with a few re- 
marks the meeting closed. 

Mr. Ajer's health required more out-door exercise, and early 
in 1849 he left Red Lake, taking with him his eldest son, and 
went to the frontier of the newly purchased territory, locating 
on the east bank of the Mississippi river about twenty miles be- 
low the Crow Wing river (now Belle Prairie, 1894). His plan 
was to open an independent school there for the more advanced 
and promising children in different parts of the Ojibwa coun- 
try. His wife and other son joined them in July, but in three 
weeks. after the son passed away like a flower, to the great 
grief of the lonely little family. But Mr. Ayer was prospered 


in his undertaking. That same year he raised a crop of pota- 
toes and oats, for all of which those who were building Fort 
Ripley gave him |1 a bushel, taking them from the field. 

J. C. Burbank (afterwards prominent in business in St. Paul) 
was hired to hew the frame of a school house, and while Mr. 
Ayer was putting it up his wife went to the Eastern states and 
got money to foot the bill and at the same time engaged teach- 
ers. Mr. E. D. Neill said it was the best school house in the 
territory at that time. 

Several of the fur traders and others gave him some aid, and 
when the school was opened sent their children. At first all 
the pupils had more or less Ojibway blood flowing in their veins. 
Over twenty were taken into the family, but in process of time, 
as the country settled, the school became more white than In- 
dian. Mr. Ayer was particular to have good help. During the 
progress of the school one gentleman and two ladies from Ver- 
mont, two ladies from Mount Holyoke seminary, two from the 
college in Galesburg, 111., a Mrs. Mahan of Oberlin and two or 
three others were for a longer or shorter time assistants in the 
work. They had a varying number of pupils till the commence- 
ment of the civil war and the Indian outbreak. When a dis- 
trict school was first organized it was joined with Mr. Ayer's 
school and remained so for some years. 

Mr. Ayer's health improved, and when, after the war, men 
and women were called to go among the freedmen, he and 
his wife offered their services. In 1865 they were sent to Gal- 
latin, Tenn., but finding the place occupied by earnest Quakers, 
they went to open a school in Atlanta, Ga. He stopped at 
Chattanooga and shipped a soldiers' chapel for a school house. 
Ten days after his wife joined him, and they immediately com- 
menced school in the African church. On the first day they 
had seventy-five pupils — on the next day over one hundred. In 
less than a week the chapel was ready for use, more teachers 
had arrived, and both houses were filled. The work increased 
rapidly, and Mr. Ayer was obliged to leave the schools to at- 
tend to other matters. But his place was filled in the person 
of the late Mr. Ware, president of Atlanta university. The 
American Missionary association built two large houses under 
his supervision and remodeled another. His varied duties led 
to an acquaintance with different classes of men, and all 
seemed to respect him. He looked on most of them with favor. 


and the feeling was reciprocated. His first year in Atlanta 
was a peculiarly trying one. Members of families who had 
been long separated were in search of each other. They were 
cold and hungry. Mr. Ayer, by little and little, from his own 
private purse, saved many froni starvation. He gave them no 
money, but for some time he had quite a bill to pay monthly at 
a grocer's. He gave tickets of small value for something eata- 
ble, just enough to keep them from starvation. Many did 
starve — both whites and negroes. ^lany others fed themselves 
by digging bullets from embankments in and around the city. 
There were others who lived by gathering bones, which were 
stacked in the heart of the city till they were shipped and 
ground to fertilize the surrounding country. It was whispered 
by anatomists that there was a large sprinkle of human bones 
among them. At the same time the smallpox was raging in 
the city. 

Mr. Ayer organized a Congregational church and had a bap- 
tistry connected with the house of worship (Storrs school) 
that he might baptize by immersion, or otherwise, according to 
the wishes of the candidate. He also formed a temperance 
society, which, some months before his death, numbered more 
than six hundred members. 

He was sick only three weeks, and in that time he was car- 
ried out two or three days to attend to important business 
which no other could as well do. To facilitate labor, his son, 
who, with his wife, had remained South after the war, had 
given his horse to his father and the latter bought himself a 
buggy. This enabled him to accomplish twice the work he 
could otherwise have done. In that hot climate he was indus- 
trious to a fault. He worked in summer as well as in winter, 
and seemed to enjoy it. "The spirit of a man sustaiueth his 
infirmity." But his work was done. 

At his death there was great lamentation. One aged rebel, 
w^ho had lost a small fortune by the war, embraced the corpse, 
and, with sobs, said : "If he had not holpen me I should have 
gone before him." Many others, in word or action, expressed 
a similar feeling. All classes of people were represented at his 
funeral to the number (as was estimated) of three thousand. 
His remains were buried in Atlanta cemetery, Oct. 1, 1867. 

Thus passed away one who had spent a life for the benefit of 

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